Sunday, November 14, 2010

The Sketch Book of Geoffrey Crayon, Gentleman by Washington Irving

The Sketch Book was first published in seven numbers/installments in the United States before being published in two volumes in London (1819-1820). The generally enthusiastic reception of Irving's sketches in England was unusual, since at the time British opinion of American literature was pretty low. Irving's sketches were formally innovative and successful--he is credited by literary historians as being the first American author to make a living as a professional author. In particular, as Irving explicitly makes reference to in a short essay concluding the second volume of the London edition, his intent was to create pieces that didn't necessarily hang together as a whole, but which were heterogeneous in nature. Irving's logic was that his miscellany was "written for different humours" and that his end was that "it should contain something to suit each reader."

The deliberately miscellaneous nature of The Sketch Book makes it difficult to summarize, so it might be most useful to present a few of the more memorable ones which might typify others. The following categories I have created to give a sense of the thematic range of work which occurs in The Sketch Book but are by no means exhaustive.
Books/Authorship/Literary Endeavor
Many of the sketches wrestle with the question of literary and critical production, specifically with how to produce work of value when so much has come before. In several of the sketches, Crayon comments on his own inability as well as lack of desire to engage in such endeavors. His project, by contrast, is to record his own passing observations and imaginings without such an overblown goal as to produce work that would have an impact on posterity. In "The Art of Book Making," Crayon wanders into the library at the British Museum and points out the poor scholar who was "constructing some work of profound erudition, that would be purchased by every man who wished to be thought learned, placed upon a conspicuous shelf of his library, or laid open upon his table--but never read." In this same sketch, Crayon fancies a vision of these scholars as thieves, stealing bits and pieces of old author's words (metaphorized in his vision as bits and pieces of old author's clothes). Clearly, such endeavors seem fruitless to Crayon. In "The Mutability of Literature," he seems to pose a solution which might soothe anxiety over the prolific amounts of work produced by the press: In an imagined conversation with a quarto published by Wynkyn de Worde in the Westminster Abbey library, Crayon instructs the quarto in the value of producing works solely for one's own time and reveals that the notion of "purity" in language and literature to be false. Finally, as the sketch "English Writers on America" reveals, these anxieties Crayon expresses over scholarly and literary production have much to do with America's place as a growing literary nation. In this sketch, Crayon addresses Americans, telling them not to feel overwhelmed or beaten down by the snarky English critics. Instead, America ought to be the birthplace for a new, sincere kind of writing, which takes the best and the most ideal from it's "fountainhead" (England) but exorcises it of its modern day "sarcasm."
Despite Crayon's views on the need to "write for one's time," he also believes that this doesn't exclude the possibility that there might be certain authors whose works will stand the test of time because of their universal humanity. Shakespeare is one such example. In "Stratford on Avon," Crayon embarks upon a poetical pilgrimage to the bard's hometown, seeking out his grave, connecting the landscape with various fictional scenes (e.g., the forest setting of As You Like It), and also with scenes from Shakespeare's own life. In particular, Crayon imagines a supposed incident of Shakespeare stealing deer from the grounds of the affluent Lucy family and needing to face the head of the family for his crime. Crayon's imaginative reverie connected with the "idea of Shakespeare" is clearly pleasant and salutary. In "Boar's Head Tavern, East Cheap," Crayon embarks on a similarly poetical pilgrimage, seeking out the location of Falstaff and his friends' merrymaking. Crayon is at first insecure about his amateur appreciation of his kind of "research," comparing the amount of eulogy and research done on Shakespeare to the many honorariums mounted for saints at a Catholic church. Soon, however, it becomes clear that Crayon's "research" is quite different from that which might be conducted by scholars of Shakespeare, the amateur's appreciation melds the characters from fiction and history and delights not in manuscripts but in relics: a tobacco box which displayed Prince Hal and Falstaff, and a goblet dating back to the time of Henry IV. This kind of research is clearly pleasurable, in contrast to the dusky, dry type of research performed by scholars in libraries.    
Crayon clearly has a vexed relationship with superstition and romance. At times, Crayon distances himself from the gullibility of believing in local superstitions, but at other times, he seems to have no qualms in becoming caught up in the charm of superstitious lore. Certainly, he holds up his own usage of a sort of "romantic imagination" in observing his world to be particularly salutary in a world increasingly caught up with erudite production.One way that this vexed relationship seems to be worked out is that the most potentially romantic stories of the supernatural, "Rip Van Winkle," "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow," and "The Spectre Bridegroom" are (double, since Crayon is already Irving's narrator) framed stories. Crayon doesn't tell the stories--the former two stories are found in the papers of the early Dutch chronicler, Knickerbocker, and the latter story was overheard by Crayon at a Flemish Inn. In each story, too, there is always the possibility of a mundane explanation for what the characters have perceived to be supernatural events: Rip was "out of his head"; Brom Bones was playing a trick in order to run Ichabod Crane out of town, pretending to be the headless horseman himself; and in "The Spectre Bridegroom," it is revealed to all that the bridegroom is not in fact a spectre but the friend of the groom posing as the groom. These details further add to the blurring of lines between belief and non-belief, which as I will argue in the approaches section, might enable readers to make the choice for themselves.
Idealization of Rustic Life
Crayon repeatedly idealizes rustic, agrarian life. In "Rural Life in England," he contrasts the affective bonds between people in agrarian settings with the indifference of metropolitan life. As a "gentleman" himself, Crayon likes to point out that the "fondness for rural life among the higher classes of the English" has been particularly salutary to the nation because these higher classes often mix and mingle with the lower classes in the country, smoothing over the rough edges of class distinction in the city. In "Rural Funerals" Crayon idealizes a pre-linguistic, poetical sentiment which inheres in rural graves "written" by flowers. These remarks of Crayon speak back to the assumptions that literacy necessarily means progress and consistently reflect Crayon's dislike of erudition.
Crayon is particularly fascinated with antiques and relics, not for what they are, historically, but for their imaginative value. The contemplation of relics (for example, in "Westminster Abbey") and how "man passes away" bring Crayon to a poetical, romantic melancholy. In "London Antiques," Crayon fancies that the pensioners at the old charter house are actually mystical scholars but his imaginative vision is no less exciting and affecting once he has realized the truth. With relics and antiques, it matters less what they are and more what they might allow the imaginative individual to dream up.
For Crayon, Christmas is a time of healing: "We feel more sensibly the charm of each other's society, and are brought more closely together by dependence on each other for enjoyment." These affective bonds, however, are not forged out of religious feeling but out of tradition (the most dour character in these sketches is the parson, whose erudite arguments are horribly out of date, Crayon points out that the parson argues against straw men). For "Christmas Eve" and "Christmas Dinner" Crayon accompanies an old friend to his family's home in the country and experiences the comforts of traditional English food and hospitality. The squire invites those of the lower class to partake in the food and festivities (Crayon acknowledges the difficulties of classes mixing, but nevertheless clearly praises the squire for such efforts).
Native American History
In two sketches, Crayon attempts to paint a portrait of Indians as noble savages, essentially accepting the notion that Indians were closer to natural man and thus, often a little bit of education and civilization would actually make them less noble. Crayon writes a revisionist history of King Philip's War in "Philip of Pokanet," justifying his war against the whites as justified and deeply moral, and rescuing him from dominant accounts which emphasize his barbarity.
**Irving's "Christmas" sketches and also his "Stage Coach" sketch which tells of people traveling to see family via the stage coach seem clear sources for Dickens. Like Irving's sketches, Dickens's "Christmas Dinner" emphasizes the affective healing of tradition: "feasting, quaffing, frolicking, and good cheer" as William Hedges puts its. Harper's called him the "laureate of English Christmas." Additionally, like Irving's "Stage Coach" sketch, Dickens's "Hackney Coach Stands" similarly uses how transport brings networks of people together, which then allows the narrator to focus on telling and/or imagining stories about them.

As I mentioned briefly above, the openness to belief or non-belief which characterizes some of the more romance-like, supernatural stories allows the reader control over the work in these sketches. The reader might decide to believe or not to believe, consistent with Irving's aims to appeal to all kinds of readers through his inclusion of miscellany. The multi-leveled framing which frequently occurs in Irving's sketches has the effect of erasing authorship, which in turn seems to elevate readership. In Dickens's Sketches by Boz or Mitford's Our Village, the strong, first-person-plural "we" and respective personalities of "Boz" and Mitford forces readers to take these personas as their guide wherein the morality and ethics of Boz and Mitford become the readers' own. Crayon, too, is not a particularly charismatic narrator--he has no one to turn to for Christmas dinner, and appears to be socially integrated into plans for dinner by a chance meeting. Crayon is an idle, wandering gentleman, a lonely spectator who seems to derive his need for human affect through acts of spectatorship. This places a kind of distance between the reader and Crayon, enabling the content of the sketches to stand alone and thus be independently judged by each reader.

The power of readership seems closely linked to Crayon's literary amateurism. Crayon's appreciation of Shakespeare is a personal one; he is the kind of reader who unapologetically multiplies imaginative associations according to his whim, who singles out certain characters for his affection as if they were friends from his own life. There is nothing scholarly or systematic about his appreciation, and this seems to be what Irving would encourage his own readers to do. The message is that readers ought not to be afraid of their literary amateurism--on the scale of the nation, perhaps Irving suggests that American readers and writers both should not be afraid of amateurism, but might even capitalize on this amateurism as sincere and thus having a palliative influence on Old World, European snark.

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